If you don’t already read Young Adult (YA) literature, or if you haven’t read any since you were a kid, I’d say that you’re missing out. Teaching middle school brought me back to it, thankfully, else I never would have read Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, and what a shame that would be. In my mind they are part of the new era of the YA literature canon, and deservedly so. Now that I’m working with a small group of 4th graders who are already proficient readers for their grade level, I find myself exploring YA lit yet again. Before Christmas we read Jerry Spinelli’s Wringer, and currently we are reading another book by the same author called Stargirl. As a part of the book club myself, one of our hard and fast rules is that it is NOT okay to read ahead; it spoils discussion if anyone does so. In my effort to lead by example, I really haven’t read ahead at all, but right now I’m dying to know what happens… and we don’t meet again until Tuesday. (sigh)
One of the skills I am working on with the 4th graders is having them notice their thinking during reading — in other words, be metacognitive. As they read, they are expected to write Post-it notes in their books when they have an observation or make a connection or spot a lovely word or phrase or understand something new or different about a character, etc. Again, as part of the modeling process, I too write Post-it notes, at least when I’m reading Stargirl. We bring our ideas to discussion, which usually leads to more discussion. Read, Post-it, and repeat. The goal is not to come to definitive conclusions about the text or try to come to consensus; rather, we are learning how to think deeply and have thoughtful discussions. It requires practice. Not every person was born ready to participate in a Socratic seminar.
Since I have to wait for a few days for my turn to share at book club, I will do my writing here. Stargirl is an exceptional character. She is a free-spirited, self-nicknamed 10th grader who has been home-schooled up until the point of entering high school this year. She dresses strangely, plays a ukelele, and in general tries to spread love and kindness (in her hippie way) throughout an incredibly apathetic high school population. Leo, the 11th-grade narrator, observes this about her:
Of all the unusual features of Stargirl, this struck me as the most remarkable. Bad things did not stick to her. Correction: her bad things did not stick to her. Our bad things stuck very much to her. If we were hurt, if we were unhappy or otherwise victimized by life, she seemed to know about it, and to care, as soon as we did. But bad things falling on her – unkind words, nasty stores, foot blisters – she seemed unaware of…. She had no ego. (Spinelli 52-53)
This character sort of embodies one of the Four Agreements: Don’t take anything personally. When her peers or the community treat her as an outsider or misunderstand her intentions, it is more a reflection of their own insecurities and fear of the unknown. How could anyone be so empathetic? How could anyone be so sensitive to how others are feeling and desire to show them care? In one of my Post-it note musings, I wrote that she is a very Christ-like figure, in that she starts to be persecuted, yet never stops being kind or giving. She never complains or lashes out at them in public.
While I am not advocating for everyone to wear flowing clothes and sing in the lunchroom, I do think the world could make good use of people like Stargirl, whose actions make me believe that she knows that “shared joy is a double joy; shared sorrow is a half sorrow.” She’s not a bleeding heart martyr. She isn’t a self-righteous Pollyanna. But she is someone who has a genuine interest in other people and in wanting them to feel happily alive. I would love to have a Stargirl in my life, though I think a part of her lives in each of us if we spend some time looking for her.
Our next book club meeting can’t come soon enough.